The area around the Weissensee is one of Europe’s hidden gems, writes Nick Elvin
At the Plöcken Pass a disused border post has long ceased to delay travellers making the journey south from Austria. But a restaurant on the Italian side of the frontier still offers somewhere to take a break from the steep, twisting mountain roads.
We sit in the sunshine with a morning coffee, watching climbers tackle the surrounding rock faces, while road users on two wheels cease pedalling or switch off engines, and stretch tired limbs.
South of the border, Plöcken Pass is known as Passo Monte Croce Carnico. But despite linguistic differences, there has long been a good relationship between the Italians of Friuli and the Austrians of Carinthia, and there are plenty of cultural similarities.
In fact, during World War One, the respective powers had to bring in soldiers from far off places like Sicily to fight in these mountains; such was the friendship between the local people. Along the border, hundreds of thousands of servicemen died, many of them not due to the fighting, but because they were so unused to local conditions they succumbed to the cold, malnutrition or disease.
Back across the border in Carinthia, a state Austrians call Kärnten, we pass a reminder of what is, to people from outside the area, a largely forgotten front of the Great War: a military cemetery, in a valley of towering limestone peaks.
This morning my tour group is travelling in the company of Barbara Klauss, who runs the Hotel Kürschner in the town of Kötschach-Mauthen, which is a ten-minute drive from the border – making a quick visit to Italy an easy add-on to a trip to this part of Austria. The hotel is in the middle of an area known as “Nature’s Arena”. This morning I drew back the curtains to see the snowy Carnic Alps under blue skies.
The hotel has been in Barbara’s family more than 200 years; pictures of her ancestors adorn the walls inside this cosy, homely building. But despite all this tradition, which even extends to the dress Barbara wears, inhabitants have one eye on the future. The village produces 88 per cent of its own power, whether solar, hydroelectric, or from wood. The goal is to make that figure 100 per cent.
The hotel is no exception; it is a member of Naturidyll, a group of hotels whose aim is to preserve a typical regional atmosphere, use local products and care for the environment.
Barbara leads us through what is considered the most beautiful hotel garden in Carinthia. The hotel, which also boasts a spa, is partly self-sufficient. There is a vineyard, herb garden, orchard and a polytunnel, and crops grown here include tomatoes, courgettes, fennel, chives, radishes and celery. What you eat in the restaurant is likely to come from the garden, or at least from local producers. And you can wash it down with a glass or two of the limited edition red or white wine produced from the hotel’s own grapes. It even has its own schnapps.
Leaving Barbara and the hotel behind, we head up the steep winding road north, then drop into the Drau valley. Above us the sky appears full of paragliders and hangliders. This is the sunny side of the Alps, where the above average hours of sunshine and ideal wind conditions encourage such flying adventures.
We drive to the 11km-long Weissensee, or “White Lake”, its name derived from the chalky mud that covers the bottom of the lake around its shallow edges. Most of the lake, however, appears green, reflecting as it does the steep wooded mountains that rise up on all sides.
The lush green forests look as inviting as the lake - but beware: there are creatures lurking in them thar woods. To learn more about them we take a tour with wildlife behaviourist Manuela Siller. The tour begins on board a raft - a large floating platform that seems to have been nailed on to a small motorboat. Out on the lake we get a view of the distant Dolomites as we slowly cross the calm waters.
Manuela shows us photographs of the wildlife we may encounter, and many of them come as a surprise. They include big brown bears, lynx, golden eagles, bearded vultures, two metre long snakes, and gryphon vultures. Hoping to see at least one of them, we take a walk in the woods and meadows on the far shore. But, as can often be the case on wildlife walks, we don’t see any of them, although there’s plenty to learn about among the woods and meadows, which are so full of flowers that it’s no wonder the bees round here produce delicious honey.
At 930 metres above sea level, Weissensee is the highest swimming lake in Austria, and before heading back on the raft we have time for a dip. It’s a hot day, so the cool water is refreshing, and, we’re told, clean enough to drink. The water temperature can reach 23 Celsius in summer; in winter it freezes over, and people get around on skates and cross-country skis.
Our new accommodation is another Naturidyll hotel, the Hotel Regitnig, in the lakeside village of Techendorf. It has an impressive spa. It also has a pedalo, and although there’s a bridge linking the two sides of the lake, we opt for a waterborne journey for a sundowner at a pub on the opposite shore.
Next day, we join Riviera - a horse, and Anna - her handler, for a trek into the mountains. Riviera carries our backpacks, allowing us to walk up through the woods unburdened, enjoying glimpses of the lake through the trees on one side, and layers of rock that have been tilted steeply by the tectonic forces that have built the Alps on the other.
We emerge from the forest into flower-filled pastures, where we stop at an inn, situated 1,300 metres above sea level for lunch. Our well-earned beer washes down the contents of a platter that includes pork pâté, sausage, cheeses (including one flavoured with cumin), ham and Kärntner Kasnudeln (pasta balls filled with potato, mint and onion).
Arriving back down at two o’clock, we head for the hotel’s private beach, which includes 1,200 square metres of sunbathing lawn. We take the pedalo out to the nearby SCUBA platform for a swim. Later, back at the hotel, we enjoy strudel and coffee – an afternoon ritual at the Regitnig - and then burn it off with a game of tennis.
This in turn makes room for more food, and we don’t have very long to wait. Over dinner in the hotel’s conservatory we watch the sun’s late rays paint the mountains first gold then pink. There’s an impressive menu featuring local pork, duck and lake fish to choose from.
In Austria, the food reflects a year-round outdoor lifestyle - and there seem to be within easy reach a hundred ways to burn off all the calories. Next day, we take a bike trip round the lake – along reasonably flat roads and tracks. It’s one of countless cycling options in the region, from half-day trips to excursions lasting several days and hundreds of kilometres.
By the lake you can learn about the timeless legend of two lovers, who lived on either shore, but had no way of getting to each other. I won’t spoil the ending.
We break our journey by taking the pleasure steamer for a 30-minute journey to the eastern end of this fjord-like lake. There’s an announcement when we cross the deepest point, 99 metres. Why don’t they just call it a hundred, I wonder? There’s an honesty about the place.
Dolomitenblick, at the end of the lake, has campsites and a small marina. In a restaurant with views back along Weissensee we lunch on rich goulash and beer. We don’t have time for the strudel – so we take it back on board the boat.
I’ve rarely felt as full as I have these last couple of days - so it’s probably for the best we decide to disembark early and cycle the last few kilometres back to the hotel.
Carinthia tourist information: www.kaernten.at
Austrian National Tourist Office: www.austria.info
Getting there: Ryanair (www.ryanair.com) flies from London Stansted to Klagenfurt. From there it’s best to rent a car (approx 1hr 20min drive to the Weissensee).
If you want to take your own car, it’s a 1,300km / 12-hour drive from Calais.
Many hotels provide a pick up service from nearby railway stations – there are rail services from Klagenfurt and beyond.